Photo Eric Kunnen, Associate Director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies, Grand Valley State University

Keeping Students Engaged: The Role of Faculty in Student Retention



Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jul 12, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Student retention and student success are important areas of focus for educational institutions today. With the rising costs of higher education and the value of employability after graduation, student retention plays a strategic role in our institutional vision and mission.

The challenge of improving student success and retention is multifaceted and involves all areas at a higher education institution. At Grand Valley State University, an institution with 25,000 students and an average class size of 26, this is the primary focus.

Teachers, professors and instructors engage directly at the course level. It is key that faculty do what they can to personalize and humanize their courses by providing engagement through instructor presence.

At Grand Valley State University (GVSU), a photo roster integrated into Blackboard Learn helps faculty learn student names. This enables faculty to focus their attention on best practices for engaging students in first-year undergraduate courses. Having faculty ‘know you’ as a student and not treat you like a number is an important aspect of the college experience, vital to student success and retention.

Faculty that are approachable, know students by name, and invite learners to come talk to them and ask questions, which goes a long way in building an effective faculty-student relationship. Providing students with a good overall college experience is helpful, and tactics that seem small carry a lot of weight.

Having grades posted right away, informing students of what they need to do to pass the class, and helping them understand all they need to be successful creates a supportive environment for learning. Encouraging students and believing in them builds rapport. Faculty that approach students with pedagogy that has a coach, mentor, and facilitator of learning ground work helps to ensure student success.

Kim Kenward, instructional designer, eLearning and Emerging Technologies, underscores the point of the faculty-student relationship:

“One of the most significant factors influencing student retention in a course is whether students feel they belong to a larger community. It’s imperative that instructors design opportunities and assignments that ensure a student does not feel isolated. When students are given the opportunity to work with each other through activities such as written or video discussions, peer reviews, and group assignments, they are more likely to feel part of a community, become engaged with the course content, and stay enrolled in the course.”

Ultimately, it’s helpful to remember the ‘big picture’ among the details. Focusing on the pedagogy and the art of facilitation is key to teaching. Instructors that are engaged with their students provide an extra boost that is often needed by students.

“Keeping students engaged and involved is the job. Losing students from the class is not the end of the world but keeping them moving forward is the responsibility of the whole village. We are not just grading papers or assignments, we are creating the basis of sound citizenship in a community, our community. That’s on all of us.”

Adrienne Wallace, instructor, GVSU School of Communications, Ad/PR Major

Reasons Why Students Drop Out of School

Students have many activities happening in their lives, and depending on their circumstances, college may not be their priority. Medical challenges, family dynamics, and their overall well-being is part of the picture. Simply stated, college is a lot of work – learning is a lot of work. Students can often take too many classes and sometimes they may need to drop one class to have time to focus on another one. Students may be working full time while trying to go to school full time. Students may leave a course because they are failing the class.

In short, students may leave courses for a variety of reasons. Their lives are complex, busy, and there are many life factors. This is why proper student orientations and robust student services are key. Students may just need that one support service that encourages and enables them to continue with their education. Faculty have a unique role in the engagement and connection with students. Often what is needed is a ‘life line’ and a feeling of genuine care for their personal well-being and that the student, their peers, and the instructor are all part of a community of learners.

Students also need help in ensuring they place their priorities in the right place. Downtime and free time are important but spending too much time on “extra-curricular” activities such as video games takes them away from the needed cognitive time to process their course material.

“I try to let them know we are all in this together. If something is traditionally difficult for students, I just lay it out there. Then I can give them tips to make it easier if we just identify together the difficulties. It can always be a conversation.”

Adrienne Wallace

How Faculty Can Support Student Success

Without the student’s own investment, they are at risk of failure. After all, learning is a personal activity. While this is in fact where the rubber meets the road, there are aspects of the faculty role that can contribute and support student success and retention.

It may go without saying, but it’s helpful for faculty to monitor their students. Not in an overbearing way, but to offer coaching and mentoring. It is often helpful to simply ‘check-in’ with students by asking, “What’s on your mind?” or “I didn’t see you in class, is everything OK?” or saying, “I noticed you haven’t accessed Blackboard in a couple of weeks, I posted your grades and feedback, let me know if you have any questions and hang in there!”

Student feedback is arguably the most important aspect. Timely grading assignments and immediately posting the results and instructor comments is key. Students frequently ask their instructors to use the assessment and grading tools in the digital learning environment at greater levels. In fact, research has told us of the importance of grades to student success.

Put simply, after the first assessment, if a student is failing, he or she is already at risk. Faculty should identify those students that are struggling immediately. Having conversations is important too, as students often let you know that something is going on in their lives and then these students can be on your ‘radar.’

Szymon Machajewski, CIS affiliate professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems, underscores the value of reaching out to students proactively:

“Students who are likely to drop out miss assignments, lectures, and stop contributing in the course. All these progress indicators can be detected in the digital learning environment and at least followed up through the Grade Center email system.”

Faculty should use early alert systems – tools such as the Performance Dashboard and Retention Center in Blackboard Learn. Simple tactics such as emailing the student, asking them to your office or staying after class, and overall encouraging them and reaching out to them can contribute to student retention.

Meeting students one-on-one and face-to-face provides an aspect of genuine care above and beyond a ‘general email.’ It’s about caring for students and showing that you are concerned and want them to know that you are there for them as a faculty member.

Adrienne Wallace employs a variety of strategies to engage with students, while providing an important context for the role of the instructor in supporting student retention:

“I have a few tips I rely on: knowing the names of all students AND making time for/allowing the students to build their classroom network immediately. I know we would all like to think that students come to class for our sparkling personality and knowledge base, but the reality is that they are accountable to their peers more than they are to you. If they have friends in the class, they will come. If they feel confident in their work, they will come. If they like the environment you have created in your classroom, they will come. If you email them when they miss class to check on them, they will come. If you show you understand them, they will come. If they do not come to class, you need to take a hard look at how you interact with your students.”

Technology, a Valuable Resource to Improve Student Retention

Large class sizes make it even more important to leverage technology to share course materials, communicate with students, and provide assessment and grading feedback. Students in large courses can often feel isolated. Personal connections and building a supportive learning community are critical to student success and retention.

There is a plethora of tools you can use pedagogically to connect with students. Using technology, faculty can engage with students in unique ways, provide creative assignment feedback, and bring in a new level of instructor persona using lightboard videos.

One tip for faculty teaching large classes is to reach out to their campus eLearning support team. From digital media developers to instructional designers, your campus staff can support you as a faculty member. At GVSU, the eLearning team has assembled a series of video tips called “Tech Bytes” that provide a variety of unique approaches to the implementation of technology in teaching.

For large classes, placing course materials online, creating lightboard videos, and using student response systems are helpful in engaging students. Further, moving toward a flipped or active learning instructional model can provide an enhanced pedagogical approach that creates a highly interactive environment for students. Not using the entire class period for lecturing can free up valuable, in-person time in class, for the personalized and customized learning needs of students.

Szymon Machajewski shares the value of technology in large classes:

“Technology such as Blackboard Learn, Pearson MyLab IT, and others, scale across large enrollment courses. They help instructors track student progress and represent electronic evidence of student activity. With this evidence, the Blackboard Retention Center can process large sets of data to help identify specific individuals and their needs early in the semester.”

Using an early alert system, or the Performance Dashboard or Retention Center in Blackboard Learn, can save time while also redirecting focus to those students who need an extra ‘high touch’ connection. In addition, communication tools such as announcements, discussion boards, journal, and live chat ensure that students can reach out to the instructor and the instructor can effectively and efficiently inform students while building a valuable rapport.

Because of individual learning differences, dedicating time to supporting good Universal Design for Learning enables course materials to be more personalized. In “Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is About Access,” Dr. Thomas J. Tobin discusses the importance of UDL as a way to think about how we can make our courses proactively more engaging for students, while ensuring our course content is providing flexibility and that all students can benefit.

“Social media has always been a natural extension of my classroom. PR people love to tweet and retweet. Additionally, using resources like Skype or Zoom for office hours on the STUDENT schedule, which sometimes means AFTER 9pm, or even a simple phone call meeting, shows you are willing to go the extra mile and open the communication lines. I have over 125 advisees in my program and three courses of students, along with the responsibilities that come with advising a student group and a student-run PR firm. The schedule became not about me as soon as I said ‘yes,’ and that is okay with me. Four to six office hours a week will not help that scenario I just laid out. So, I have to be available in a more flexible way. As soon as I started letting students text me, my classes opened up more. They could ask me a ‘scary’ question and get an immediate response. I know immediacy isn’t for everyone, but I find that if I can squash an issue late at night, they don’t stay up anxious all night long worrying and hating me — it’s actually a win and doesn’t take that much effort to help. Even an answer they don’t love hearing is better than not knowing all night. My deal with my students regarding evening communication is: If I can answer, I will. If I cannot, it’s not personal… I might just be sleeping… I am over 40 after all :).”

Adrienne Wallace

Finally, while not only a solution for large class sizes, technology plays an increasingly important role in the delivery of high-quality education that contributes to improving student outcomes. One of the challenges for students is the rising costs of higher education. An area that is promising is the use of open educational resources (OER) and open textbooks. We know that many students are unable to purchase textbooks and often make decisions at the beginning of the semester to wait to buy their textbooks. This prevents students from accessing the resources they need to be successful. With OER, this barrier is removed, and students have access to their course materials on the first day of class, and further, they are able to better manage their financial resources along the way.

In addition, as shown in a recent report in a study by Arizona State University, Research: Online Courses Associated with Improved Retention, Access, “Online courses are associated with higher retention and graduation rates, increased access and cost savings of as much as 50%” Flexible learning options meet student needs in providing opportunities for students to continue their progress toward their degree and educational attainment. Therefore, it is important to align resources and to strategically position the support of faculty in the creation of online and hybrid courses at our institutions.

Student Retention, a Responsibility of All

Student retention is a responsibility of the entire institution. Working together across the campus provides an opportunity for unique synergies in student services and support. Faculty benefit from technology and pedagogical assistance. Tips for creating active and personalized learning help to ensure that teaching is “humanized.” Taking advantage of tools such as early alert, the Performance Dashboard or the Retention Center in Blackboard is valuable. All in all, when talking to the students in person, there is tremendous value in hearing their stories and their struggles. Ultimately, if there isn’t a personal connection, students will feel isolated and will often not take advantage of campus support and services. Student services come alongside the instructor to provide another layer to reach each student individually.

Be sure to reach out to your campus’s eLearning support team, join a faculty learning community, participate in student orientation or move in day, learn about the student services that are available to students in your class – and let your students know!

Our Experience With Retention at GVSU

As an educational institution, we are here for the students. Students and their stories help us to stay student-centered and help us move the needle in student retention. When faculty focus on their instructor presence and engage with students at the personal level, something magical happens. Often, students will then visit their instructor outside of class. Encouraging students to reach out, to ask for help, and being open to providing the help enables students to grow and learn. Willing students connecting with caring faculty makes students motivated as there is a personal connection – the instructor isn’t a stranger.

Adrienne Wallace shares the importance of being proactive and engaging with students:

“I would just say, don’t give up on a student because they stop coming to class. ‘Bug’ them every week. A short, ‘Hey, I noticed you weren’t around this week, are you okay?’ goes a long way to helping them come back. It’s important to be human. I think a lot of issues can be tackled by just treating a student like a student, not like a child or a subordinate. They are hungry for the responsibility, they just don’t quite know how to juggle it all sometimes, and that is part of growing.”

Connecting with students through quality courses and taking advantage of technology as a lever provides a thorough approach. Szymon Machajewski reinforces this:

“Our experience with Blackboard Learn in reaching out to students through email, announcements, and peer-instruction is a reflection of the Exemplary Course Program (ECP). Courses designed with the assistance of the ECP rubric help students interact with each other, with the course content, and with the instructor to promote engagement and retention.”

Beginning at the institutional level, retention starts before the students arrive on campus. The outreach and connections that are provided to prospective students, and the consistent messaging across the student experience, provides a foundational grounding for the campus and for the student. That is, their journey is about to begin and their path is one that allows them to explore new directions, find their niches, and develop skills for life and productive careers (as per GVSU’s vision statement).

Not to be overlooked, campus tours and ‘student welcome week activities’ play a role in connecting students to services and support. A component of student retention are those campus services that come alongside a student during their educational experience: library, tutoring, help desk, athletics, and student organizations can help freshman engage with the campus, meet other students and, overall, to engage at a deep level with the institution.

Finally, it’s important also to help students ‘begin with the end in mind.’ That is, they are entering their educational experience with the goal to graduate and start a career. Along those lines, institutions often employ incentives along the way. Grand Valley State University has a unique incentive (“The Grand Finish”) that provides a discount in tuition to encourage students to graduate and finish their educational journey strong. Further, ensuring students have access to degree planning tools provides crucial guidance to students. GVSU has a ‘myPath’ tool that is designed to assist students in preparing for and tracking their progress toward graduation. It encompasses both a degree analysis audit and an educational planner.

Ultimately, if we want to improve student retention and success, we need to be student-centered and align our resources strategically.


Eric is an associate director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. His primary role focuses on collaborating and supporting distance learning initiatives at the university while exploring future trends in emerging technologies in teaching and learning. He also collaborates to research and support academic technologies used in the classroom and in eLearning. Eric has had experience using Blackboard since 1999, and has been involved in system administration, project management for upgrades, faculty training, and end user support. Eric is a frequent participant on listservs, a Blackboard MVP (“Ask the Doctors”) moderator, is involved in beta testing and the Product Development Partnership Program.

Photos by: AFP – Rod Sanford